PITTSBURGH — Not even losing two key pieces for the third period of Game 4 could stop the New York Islanders from quickly wrapping up this best-of-7 Eastern Conference First Round series with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Nope, there was no panic when defenseman Johnny Boychuk limped off the ice early in the second period after blocking a shot from Penguins defenseman Marcus Pettersson, or when right wing Cal Clutterbuck headed off in the period’s final minute with an undisclosed injury.
Just like they have throughout the season, the Islanders didn’t panic. They stayed the course and gritted out a 3-1 win at PPG Paints Arena on Tuesday to complete an improbable four-game sweep, their first since the 1983 Stanley Cup Final against the Edmonton Oilers.
“Just a group effort, which we wouldn’t expect anything different from the Islanders,” said coach Barry Trotz, who is at the forefront of one of the more remarkable turnarounds from one season to the next in recent memory after New York missed the playoffs and allowed 293 goals, the most in the NHL in 2017-18. “We said we wanted to fix a couple of things, we wanted to play a certain way, we talked about culture and identity, and we tried to create that with what we felt we had.
“We didn’t know a lot about our goaltending, we didn’t know a lot about our defense. We knew that we could fix the goals against; that’s commitment and that’s work ethic and that’s detail and structure. We could fix that, that probably was the easiest thing. But getting everybody to play for each other is the hard thing.”
That was on full display throughout the series, but particularly in its final 20 minutes without Boychuk and Clutterbuck. It was most visible when defenseman Scott Mayfield bailed out goalie Robin Lehner at 6:12 of the third period by stretching his right leg across the crease to block a shot from point-blank range by Phil Kessel during a Penguins power play to protect a one-goal lead.
“If this was Game 7, I wouldn’t be surprised,” Trotz said. “We just found ways to keep the puck out of our net when it was all said and done.”
The Islanders said all the right things afterwards; the Penguins threw everything at them, they played well, it wasn’t a dominant performance over the course of the series. But despite its plethora of talent, Pittsburgh scored six goals in four games. Sidney Crosby did not have any of them.
And any time the Penguins thought they had momentum, it didn’t last. It happened again in Game 4 after forward Jake Guentzel scored his first and lone goal of the series 35 seconds into the first period, only to have Islanders right wing Jordan Eberle tie it with his fourth goal in as many games 1:34 later to make it 1-1.
Four games. The Penguins, with players like Crosby, Guentzel, Kessel, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang, led for a total of 4 minutes, 51 seconds. They scored once in 11 power-play opportunities.
“They play hard in the D-zone, 1-on-1,” Malkin said. “I think it’s the best game we played tonight, all series and we still score one goal. It’s like the forwards’ mistakes, my mistakes. We don’t score power-play goals.
“We need to understand how hard it is in this League. Every round is so hard against each team. They deserve it. They have a great team, great coaches. They play unbelievable.”
It might’ve been hard to fathom back in September that someone would be saying that about the Islanders after a playoff series in April, but captain Anders Lee said it’s a belief that’s only grown since training camp.
“You know, we have come a long way, and obviously no one predicted this,” Lee said. “But guys in the room, we set out from Day One to get better each day, to grow throughout the season. When this time came here, we were prepared for it as best we could and ready for this playoff hockey. I think we’ve proven that a little bit.”
Prove people wrong.
“It actually resonates with us a lot,” Lee said. “It’s a wonderful slogan for not only anybody out there for any reason, but for us as the Islanders and who we are and what it means to the island, for our fans and our organization and what people outside of that believe in us.”
The Islanders will wait to see if they will play the Washington Capitals — coached by Trotz to their first Stanley Cup championship last season — or the Carolina Hurricanes, who would be a similar opponent in the sense that few believed in them at the start of the season.
But left wing Matt Martin, who has proven to be a huge acquisition by general manager Lou Lamoriello last summer, doesn’t really care what anyone outside what is known as “Islanders Country” thinks.
“We believe in ourselves,” Martin said. “We pretty well just have our fanbase and our families and this group that believe in us. That’s all we need. We really don’t need anyone else’s validation. We just got out there and believe in ourselves and do our jobs.
“It’s been fun. It’s a fun ride and we’re excited to keep it going.”